Department of Bioarchaeology, Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw
Address: Krakowskie Przedmieście 26/28, 00-927 Warszawa, Poland
Phone: (+48)225522837, fax (+48)225522801
E-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor for Bioarchaeology of the Near East
Methods of Classification
Astronomy in Culture
Variability of diet in human populations of the Near East from the Neolithic to the Modern period: an application of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis (NCN HARMONIA, 2012/06/M/HS3/00272)
Research on stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic proportions in human collagen is a standard tool in investigation of diet and subsistence in past human societies. Proportions of carbon isotopes (13C to 12C) may be used to estimate share in diet of some plants with a specific photosyntesis pathway (like maize, millet, sorghum or sugarcane) or to distinguish between marine and terrestrial diets. Proportions of nitrogen isotopes (15N to 14N) are correlated with the trophic level, so the share of animal-related products in diet may be investigated.
Although research on stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes was introduced to archaeology more than 30 years ago, this method has atracted little attention of archaeologists working in the Near East. The project aims to fill this gap at least partially, providing results of isotopic research on human remains from nine archaeological sites in Northern Mesopotamia. Large dataset including several chronological units from three different ecological zones enabled some insight into changes in diet and subsistence from the Bronze Age to the Modern period.
More specifically, there are two most important results of the project. First, small but significant shift in carbon isotopic values has been observed at many sites during the second millennium BCE. As no new crops were introduced in that time, this shift was most likely the result of wider use of dry steppes for pastures of caprovid flocks. The isotopic bulk signature of wild grasses, different from domesticated cereals, was transferred to humans through animal products in diet. This shift in animal husbandry seems to reflect the broader change in social organization, with higher independence of pastoralists from the state.
Another interesting result is the dating of the large irrigation system in the middle Euphrates valley south of the Khabour confluence. Lower water stress and more extensive plant cultivation on widely irrigated fields changed the nitrogen isotopic values between the Middle Bronze Age and the Neo-Assyrian period and it is most likely that the construction of irrigation canals was a part of Assyrian policy of increasing the agricultural potential of the empire.
All these results are important for better understanding of the social and economic history of ancient Mesopotamia, but can have also broader impact on bioarchaeological methods and theory. For example, observed correlation between nitrogen isotopic values and annual precipitation allows use of the former as the proxy indicator of mobility between more dry and more humid locations.
The impact of the environment on the process of urbanisation in Late Chalcolithic Syria: the analysis of mass burials at Tell Majnuna (NCN HARMONIA, 2013/10/M/HS3/00554)
Tell Brak is an important archaeological site in Syria, with evidence of early urbanisation as early as in the end of 5th millennium BCE. At one of satellite mounds of this site called Tell Majnuna, a large midden has been found together with several clusters of partially or totally disarticulated human remains as well as a regular cemetery on the top.
At least two largest clusters, with evidence of stress, disarticulation and scavenging, seem to reflect two episodes of increased mortality that could have been caused by warfare, famine or epidemic disease. The project aims to check the hypothesis that the earliest event reflected by the largest cluster of human remains was preceded by a period of environmental stress related to drought and food shortage. To answer this question, several analytical methods are used, as study of micro- and macrodefects in the incremental layers of enamel, analysis of the sequence of oxygen isotopic values in enamel, research on enamel microwear patterns, and radiocarbon dating of human bones from several contexts.
Combined study of enamel defects and oxygen isotopic values produced significant results and at least two periods of prolonged drought and environmental stress were detected. One of them started c. 4.5 years before the event of increased mortality and directly preceded mass death, and another one occured c. 10-15 years before. It means that the early urban society was sensitive to short-term climatic fluctuations and the general level of stress was relatively high, that is indicated also by high frequency of cranial trauma and a case of child abuse found in a bit earlier cemetery at Tell Brak.
The project provided new data for the discussion about the background of rapid urbanization at Tell Brak in late 5th and early 4th millennium BCE. It also introduced some new analytical methods that allow relatively precise reconstruction of environmental history for c. 30-35 years prior to an episode of increased mortality leading to formation of a mass burial.